We recently did a food distribution here in our town through three of our local churches. In filling out our evaluation form afterward, the final question was something to the effect of: What other measurable spiritual benefits came from this project? Nathan filled out most of the form, and I came behind him to fill in a few additional details. I was struck by his answer to this question. He wrote one word: hope.
This year has done a number on our hope. I think if you looked the whole world over, you would be hard-pressed to find one community not touched by COVID-19 . . . by sickness, death, loneliness, job loss, uncertainty, fear, upheaval, grief, anxiety. Where do we find hope in a time like this?
I’ve witnessed hope in the faithful lives of Malagasy believers. I want to share that hope with you. From 2017-2019, we worked through a series of stories from church history that emphasized different doctrines with the Mahafaly leaders. We started with the first church in Acts and followed along with stories up through today.
One week we were concerned as we prepared, because our topic was God’s sovereignty and suffering. From our own cultural perspective, we expected this topic to be tough. We wrestle with how a good, powerful God can allow suffering. We’re always asking, “Why?” In fact, we struggle with that question often personally here. We see significant suffering around us every day. Why? Why is life so hard here? Why is our life so much easier? How can I fix this suffering around me—make it stop!
But when we taught through this lesson, the Mahafaly leaders didn’t bat an eye. The principle is basically that a loving God calls His people to suffer in a fallen world. When I’m confronted with this reality, I buck against it, either from one side or the other. Maybe God isn’t really loving. Or maybe He can’t really control my circumstances. Or there will be some “silver lining”—visible very soon, I’m sure—something that shows me WHY!!!
But our people here just aren’t asking those questions. They are following Christ faithfully. And they are suffering deeply. And these two things simply aren’t incongruent for them. One doesn’t threaten the other. I don’t have either the theoretical or the experiential framework for that, yet I see it over and over in the convicting testimonies of the believers here.
I’m beginning to hear this conviction too from the testimonies of people of color in the United States. I have always assumed that our propensity to insulate ourselves from suffering is an “American” problem. But I am realizing that I can only speak as a white, American evangelical. I’m learning that right alongside the America I’ve experienced are communities of believers of color worshipping God through deep suffering on a daily basis.
Please understand. I’m not denying that everyone in the world suffers—it’s a part of being human. Please, don’t hear me diminishing your personal experience of suffering. I know many of you reading this have experienced suffering unlike anything I’ve never known, and my heart aches for you. But God has been bringing specific stories of suffering and faith—from people of color in the United States—before Nathan and me over and over the last few months. I confess I was unaware of so, so much of what these brothers and sisters are facing. I’m committed to continue listening and learning, and to try, as much as I can, to weep with those who weep, whether here in Madagascar or there in the United States.
One of our local pastors here shared with us about the challenges they had faced as a family during the “confinement,” as it’s called here—the time when people were supposed to stay at home, churches were restricted from meeting, and travel was extremely limited due to COVID. He admitted that yes, things had been very hard. Then he continued, “But sometimes you forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”
“Sometimes we forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”Pastor Manentesoa
How have the challenges of this year helped us realize our true need for God? Every day? That’s the gift of suffering.
This year has been tough. I know it’s been hard on us. I know many of you have faced significant struggles. If you find your hope flagging, please take courage from communities practiced in suffering. Some of the circumstances we find ourselves in now, we probably never thought we would face. But even if . . .
You’ve lost someone, there is hope.
You don’t feel confident in the future, there is hope.
You’re worried about you or someone you love getting sick, there is hope.
You’re separated from an elderly person you love, there is hope.
You don’t see anything getting better with the coming election, there is hope.
You’ve lost your job, there is hope.
You feel threatened, there is hope.
Because, as Ekemini Uwan says,
“Hope is not an abstract concept. Hope is a person.”Ekemini Uwan, Truth’s Table Podcast
 “Truth’s Table Classroom: Why We Can’t Wait : Eschatology and BLM,” Truth’s Table podcast, 4 July 2020, recording from lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, 2014.